Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Sky in Tom Friedman's Flat World

Tom Friedman of the New York Times thinks we’re in a cold war with Iran. He’s correct that we’re in a cold war, but he’s two Friedman units and change late coming to that conclusion, and he’s got the enemy country wrong. We’re no more in a cold war with Iran than we were in a cold war for 50 years with Belarus.

There are, nonetheless, a few similarities between that cold war and this one.

How Cold Was It?

In his May 14 column, Friedman posits that “the Bush team has been so incompetent vis-à-vis Iran.” I’m not so sure about that. Friedman assumes the Bush team’s aim is a peaceful, stable Middle East, which in my estimation is an egregiously false assumption. The surest sign the Bush administration wants no part of normalized relations with Iran is its insistence that Iran give up its ability to refine uranium as a precondition to direct negotiations. The U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which both Iran and the U.S. have ratified, guarantees that all parties to the treaty have an “inalienable right” to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran’s leadership is unlikely to ever agree to America’s demands; that’s why Dick Cheney’s stooges demanded them.

The neoconservatives in the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) have apparently decided to erase much of their paper trail by neglecting to pay the rent on their website, but those familiar with their fabled letters and policy statements and their September 2000 manifesto Rebuilding America’s Defenses know of their goal to vastly expand the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East while preserving the Cold War I enclaves in Europe and the Pacific. Saddam Hussein was their convenient excuse, and 9/11 was the “new Pearl Harbor” they needed to get the American public to support their ambitions.

Invading Iraq was their “camel’s nose in the tent,” so to speak. Whether the regime change went well or poorly in Iraq, though, the neocons would need a viable pretext to keep a large military presence there, and that’s where Iran came in. The problem with Iran as the next big global boogeyman is that it just isn’t big enough to boogey globally, and as soon as the Tom Friedman’s of the nattering class get over being giddy about the possibility of a major strike on Iran, they’ll figure that out. It may take them a while longer, though, to realize that our real opponents in the new cold war are the same ones we had in the old cold war.

Cold Shoulder

Before he got the ax as head of U.S. Central Command for trying to put Dick Cheney and his “crazies” back in their box, Admiral William Fallon aptly described Iran’s standing among the world’s powers. "These guys are ants,” he said in a March 2008 interview with Esquire magazine. “When the time comes, you crush them.”

In March 2006, Condoleezza Rice stated during testimony before the Senate that “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” That exact phrase found its way into the 2006 National Security Strategy. Funny how that worked, huh? Today, John McCain, the Bush administration’s designated crown prince, castigated his presumptive presidential opponent Barack Obama for having the temerity to say Iran is not as big a threat to us as the Soviet Union was.

McCain has never been celebrated for his keen sense of perspective, but where exactly does Iran lie on the scale between anthill and evil empire?

Cold Light of Day

Iran’s economy is slightly more than six percent the size of America’s. The gap between the two countries’ defense budgets is similar.

Iran has fought one war since its establishment as a nation in 1935. The Iran-Iraq War lasted from 1980 to 1988. It began when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Iran. The U.S. backed Hussein in that war.

Iran has a potentially effective sea denial navy, but it is not capable of operating beyond the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Caspian Sea. Iran’s army has never operated more than a few miles beyond its border, and that was two decades ago during the World War I-style trench warfare with Iraq. The top-of-the line fighter jet in Iran’s air force is the F-14 Tomcat, built in America for the U.S. Navy. The Navy no longer flies the Tomcat, and Iran is the only country the U.S. sold it to. Now that we’ve finally stopped selling Iran spare parts for the Tomcat, they have nowhere else to buy them.

Iran might—I repeat “might”—be able to coerce Iraq’s Shiite militias into action against our ground forces if we attack Iran, but the worst they can probably do to our troops is to chase them off the streets and back into our “enduring bases” for a while. The militias aren’t likely dumb enough to throw themselves against the fence ala the Viet Cong, but if they are, they’ll be one less thing we have to worry about.

Iran’s ballistic missiles, if they work, can reach Israel, but ballistic missiles, as we saw in our first war with Hussein, are little more than incredibly expensive mortar rounds unless they have nuclear warheads, and the Iranians don’t have any nuclear warheads to put on theirs. If Iran ever does possess nukes, it won’t dare use them; it would not survive the retaliation. If terrorists want someone to steal a nuclear warhead from, they don’t need to bother with Iran. Pakistan has plenty of the little boogers, and its government is far less stable than Iran’s is ever likely to be. Iran’s leaders have consistently said they have no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons. Some people say they’re lying, but the people saying that are the likes of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, whose relationship with the truth has been on the rocks for many years.

The real threat Iran’s nuclear program poses is the very good possibility that it will grow into a viable, self-sustaining nuclear energy industry. If that happens, the big losers will be Dick and Dubya’s buddies with Exxon/Mobil and in the Sunni oil producing nations who will have lost control of the evolution of the global energy market. The big winners will be Iran’s sponsor nations, Russia and China.

Thus, in the grand scheme of the new cold war, Iran is more of a pest than a juggernaut. It is, if anything, a post-Soviet era equivalent of East Germany: a prize, not a peer adversary. Aside from continuing to goad us into sustaining an eternal arms race with ourselves, Russia and China won’t try to compete with us militarily this time around. That puts us at a distinct disadvantage, because by this point we’ve grown so used to getting what we want by kicking the door down that we don’t really know any other form of statecraft.

Tom Friedman and the rest of our fourth estate analysts may realize all this eventually, but I’m not holding my breath. In his May 4 column Friedman referred to Lebanon as “one of the last corners of decency, pluralism and openness in the Arab world.”

Jeepers, huh? I have no idea what he was smoking when he wrote that—Lebanon’s been a zoo since its civil war broke out in 1975—but I’d love to know what color the sky is in that flat world of his.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword .

"So we can play war…"

"Populated by outrageous characters and fueled with pompous outrage, Huber’s irreverent broadside will pummel the funny bone of anyone who’s served." — Publishers Weekly

"A remarkably accomplished book, striking just the right balance between ridicule and insight." — Booklist

View the trailer here.


  1. "at this point we’ve grown so used to getting what we want by kicking the door down that we don’t really know any other way to conduct statecraft."


    Jeff, sometimes I hate it when you nail it.

  2. ;-) Thanks, Nunya.


  3. Anonymous12:58 AM

    we can admit that pre-emptive war is an evil act and forswear it forever.

    There is competition between the United States and Iran in the Middle East today.

    The United States and Iran share a great deal, despite their division with respect to Israel, Lebanon and other interests. There is their common support for the Shiite-led government in Iraq and for the government in Afghanistan, as well as their common enmity toward Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

    With their spheres of influence partially overlapping, the United States and Iran can potentially transition from the “new cold war” environment in the Middle East to a post-cold war based on selective cooperation and mutual respect. And they can do this with greater ease than the previous cold war, particularly if the United States and its allies provide clear security guarantees and pledge to respect Iran’s sovereignty.

    Thomas Friedman quotes Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator, who has observed that in the Middle East, the United States is “not liked, not feared and not respected.”

    We have squandered the respect and admiration once felt for us in the Arab world, and we are now seen as aggressive militarists bent on imposing our will on the Arab people and their nations and blindly supporting Israel in its oppression of the Palestinians.

  4. Anonymous3:34 AM

    There are two other good reasons why Iran wouldn't use nuclear weapons on Israel.

    1) Israel is so small the fallout would spread into the neighboring countries (or worse if the missile veers off course).

    2) Jerusalem is the third holiest city to Muslims. Well, ok, might be 4th to Shiites but the point still stands, they ain't gonna nuke one of the holiest of holies. That would be like Greece nuking Istanbul (Constantinople).

  5. Well said, Vet.

    Anon, yes, two very good reasons.


  6. There is an "army news report" that says we will attack Iran.

    However, it comes from the Israeli army radio.

    Additionally, their WH sources seem to be as "un-named" as the ones quoted by the American MSM.

    The link is on Sam Smith's Progressive Review: http:/www.prorev.org.

    Or in the May 20th, Jerusalem Post: http://www.jpost.com.

    The drumbeat continues, and the Fox is still in his foxhole.

  7. We'll see, EL. As deception/psych ops go, this is the most telegraphed move I've ever seen. Under normal circumstances with "normal" leadership, I'd say it all has to be a misdirection move, but with these guys...

    Like I said a few columns back, a truly diabolical strategy can succeed in many ways. What's more, a truly grand deception is also perfect preparation for the real thing.


  8. Anonymous3:23 PM

    "If Iran ever does possess nukes, it won’t dare use them; it would not survive the retaliation."

    Spot on Jeff, there isn't a government on what's left of this planet with a suicide wish. The perks of being in power, even if you are a small nation (better to be a big fish in a little pond), are too great.

  9. Yep, and as I keep saying, it's the energy industry, not the weapon, that's the strategic gem.


  10. Anonymous9:58 PM

    Ironically, Israel also has only a White Water Navy, essentially a glorified coastal defense force--so Israel and Iran can't get at each other because their arms are too short. So this is why they're leaning on us. In fact their Prime Minister Olmert just came out for a naval blockade of Iran. Need I say that it will be HIS blockade but OUR navy? We should do what the Republic of Texas did when it rented its Navy to the Republic of Yucatan to fight off the Mexican Navy. Install taxi meters on our ships and planes and tell Olmert that we don't take personal checks--THAT'll cool his ardour. How do you say, "No tickee, no washee" in Hebrew?

  11. Good stuff Montag. Full speed ahead, your meter's running.


  12. Anonymous1:00 PM

    I do believe that you are the most well-rounded, informed and informative analyst on the "Iran situation" writing anywhere. As much as I can about this particular issue/situation, I am thankful for your insights.

    What is perhaps most impressive is your refusal to view the Bush administration's middle eastern policy as comprising an incoherent series of crazy acts, but instead, as potentially a deliberate (if wanton) strategy based on military- and energy-driven objectives.

    While there are a few others who accept that this administration isn't so crazy as to be pig-headedly maintaining an obviously-failing policy in the M.E., and who recognize that maybe the policy is achieving, more or less, what's intended (i.e., objectives that have little to do with liberation and freedom), your accomplishment, in part at least, lies in how broadly-framed and well-grounded your analysis is.

    In sum, it makes sense. Which is what I come here for.

  13. Anonymous1:20 PM

    Something "hung up" when posting my comment, above. When I posted again, part of the first paragraph went missing.

    The second sentence should read:

    "As someone who reads as much as I can about this particular issue/situation, I am thankful for your insights."

    Carry on.

  14. The PNAC policy seems to be achieving what was intended.

    Oil is $135 per barrel. We all subsidize the Neocon agenda. We pay, they make the campaign contributions.

    Disneyland and WalMart will soon be in Bagdahd.

    Your stomach is stronger than mine, Commander, if you can read the flat earth author.

    When I want to know what's happening in Lebanon, I read Robert Fisk, in the UK Independent. He actually lives there.

    We now have our latest distraction in the MSM. The polygamy thing is front and center again.

    Levin is lovin' Petreus. Petreus who has his finger to the wind, now loves diplomacy. Ranking member of the committee, Senator McCain -- had a prior commitment, out west.

    And,if you look hard enough, you can find (only on HuffPost) a small article that mentions that Jim Webb got his GI Bill through the Senate. McCain didn't vote. (prior commitment - out west.)

    All in all your average news day.
    Except here. Thank heavens.

  15. Thanks, RK.


    I just hope Webb didn't have to compromise on everything else to get that GI bill passed, but good for him. I've thought for many, many years the best investment we could make in the future would be to offer better education advantages for military service.

    It's what created the white collar middle class after WWII.


  16. Commander,
    The Webb bill passed with a veto proof majority. 75-22. So, I imagine some compromise was made.
    And, you are right, my brother went to college on his G.I. Bill.

    Bush has threatened to veto the Webb bill.

    However, speculation is, that when it comes back to the Senate, after the Bush veto, those Republicans who voted for, will jump back across the aisle, and vote for a watered down version, proposed by McCain.

    Sam Smith at Progressive Review has written an essay, posted on his website called "All War All the Time." http://www.prorev.com/allwar.htm.

    It explains in detail why we have our military in 177 countries around the world.

    It also explains why Bush doesn't want to give them anything, (like education benefits) if and when they ever leave. The Pentagon needs them to stay put.

    Worth the time.

  17. EL,

    Many grasses for the info and link.



  18. Anonymous11:18 PM

    elderlady, you're actually wrong on the compromise. The bill passed 75-22 because it was a "game of chicken" that Webb won. As long as the Republicans looked like they'd be able to deny the Webberites the 60 votes that would keep the bill from being denied the floor they were pretty solid. But when Webb got those 60 votes the Republicans folded like a cheap umbrella--especially those up for re-election, you betcha. There's no way they can spin this bill to make it out as a bad thing.

    In Shakespeare's play "Coriolanus," the Roman General of the title is running for office. He's forced to stand in the forum and declare his services to the state which make him deserving of the office. As part of the ordeal he's expected to display his scars. But Coriolanus does it with an ill grace. He sarcastically tells a friend:

    "What must I say?--'I pray, sir,'--Plague upon't! I cannot bring my tongue to such a pace.--'Look, sir;--my wounds;--I got them in my country's service, when some certain of your brethren roar'd, and ran from the noise of our own drums.'"

    Coriolanus feels that his services to Rome should speak for themselves and that he shouldn't have to beg for a reward from those who did nothing. Webb's bill addresses much the same issue.

  19. Montag,

    Coriolanus is maybe my favorite Shakespeare play and possibly the most morally ambiguous.

    One wants to admire Coriolanus, yet one winces at so much of what he does. We admire that he doesn't like showing his wounds; we cringe that his ambition leads him to abandon his principles. Ultimately he comes to a bad end that he probably deserves (at least that's what I think today).

    Fabulous stuff

  20. Anonymous5:46 PM

    Oh, absolutely! I didn't want to get bogged down telling the entire story. At first we are led to misinterpret the way that Coriolanus bridles at pandering for votes as an appeal for fair play, instead of personal arrogance and contempt for the plebians.

    In fact the original 1944 GI Bill was passed out of fear of what millions of cranky veterans might get up to--with Italy and Germany serving as recent examples too horrible to copy. Even the peaceful Bonus Marchers of 1932 scared the Hell out of people. I guess you could say that the government remembered Coriolanus--they wanted to keep those veterans inside the tent urinating out, instead of outside the tent urinating in.